The controversy over ‘Ambedkar-Nehru cartoon’ has to be discussed around two contexts: the current political scenario and State’s inappropriate treatment to Ambedkar which is nothing but marginalisation of him. I succinctly deal with these two contexts.
Despite merit in the case, the current controversy surrounding the cartoon is used by the present government prudently to kill two birds with one stone i.e., silencing academicians, intelligentsia and the critical civil society who have substantial middle class social bases. In fact, present controversy is nothing but a continuation of the tussle between the political elites and civil society over the power struggle started by the Anna Hazare movement. It’s a bourgeois political class’ natural reactionary response to the dissenting voice.
The immediate controversy started when an MP Harsimrat Kaur of Shiromani Akali Dal raised the voice against the ubiquitous ‘bad’ characterisation of politician through cartoons by NCERT’s book. “The young receptive minds think that politics is bad and all politicians are ‘looters’ and ‘criminal’ ”, brought forth by her (according to another report the issue was first raised by Thirumavalavan, a Christian-Dalit MP from the state of Tamil Nadu. He raised the issue in Lok Sabha, but permission was denied at first to speak about this). This is not mere vilification of politician but vitriolic against our political system, argued by another Member of Parliament.
Bourgeois political class found a tested shield in the form of Ambedkar’s cartoon to hide behind and launch their attack on the NCERT books and the advisory team. The whole focus certainly then shifted from cartoons that are depicting our leaders in wrong shed to the cartoon. This cartoon was marked as an instance of vilification.
If one looks at the particular cartoon and understand the totality of scope that book draws the NCERT and its advisory team are not to be blamed for current fiasco. In chapter, that hold cartoon, they have described the relevancy, authority and protracted method of the Constitution making. Thus, reason for delay in the making of Indian Constitution is explained. A counter-question can be put that whether Nehru’s whipping to the snail (a symbol of slow Constitution making process), as depicted in the cartoon, hold any merit in today’s context or not. But the bourgeois political class totally missed the point due to their obsession with self in current political scenario. They could have raised the much larger debate of marginalisation of Ambedkar in post-colonial India through varied effort.
If we separate this cartoon from the current ‘political’ controversy then the issue of image building of the dalits and belittling the contribution of Ambedkar in independent India is a matter to be thought upon. The State control mainly by the upper caste, both in government and bureaucracy, left no stone unturned in shadowing Ambedkar by the image of Gandhi, the father of nation, Nehru and his family.
According to Ramachandra Guha “Congressmen began speaking of how ‘India is Indira and Indira is India’, a process that culminated in the eventual dictatorship of the Emergency. Now, a generation later, the party chooses to be more ecumenical, distributing its veneration equally among four Gandhis, two of whom are deceased (Indira and Rajiv), two others living (Sonia and Rahul). The cult of the Nehru-Gandhis, dead and alive, is deeply inimical to the practice of democracy”. Over the last 18 years, on a rough estimate, about 450 Central and State Government programmes, projects and national and State-level institutions involving public expenditure of hundreds of thousands of crores of rupees have been named after Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi.
This prompts us to question the sensitivity towards Ambedkar showed by the Congress and other political parties. In fact, Ambedkar was posthumously awarded Bharat Ratna in 1990 much after Nehru and Indira Gandhi and just a year before Rajiv Gandhi. There is more such instance which shows that State has been biased against the dalits’ icon. Dr. Ambedkar does not feature in the list of 14 national leaders who have a memorial in their name in Delhi. However, the likes of Sanjay Gandhi appeared in the list.
In this context, creation of ‘Rashtriya Dalit Smarak’ by Mayawati in Uttar Pradesh could be seen as counter-point against the Nehru-Gandhis symbolic public hegemony. However, I must say that Mayawati had misplaced the priority of issues that are bothering dalits today. Keeping counter cultural juxtapose to the economic development would have been more fruitful. Mere symbolism won’t sustain beyond a point.
However, the upper castes dominated political system’s recent affection for Ambedkar is nothing but a fake appreciation and diversion tactics from the real issue. If cartoon on Ambedkar was problematic then it should have been put under scanner and not the whole cartoons in the NCERT’s books. Now, government has come up with a committee headed by a dalit intellectual to examine all Political Science and Social Science NCERT textbooks for Classes IX to XII to identify “educationally inappropriate material” and suggest alternatives to replace it. The report and suggestions by the committee would be susceptible to criticism, no matter what its content would be. It is so because the selection of various cartoons and other contents of the books as “objectionable” bound to be interpreted by various sections variably even if committee come up with an explanatory notes. What government would require now is to think of building ‘consensus’ around the content of books to be acceptable to all. That would be solution to current problem. However, marginalisation of Ambedkar by the bourgeois political class in the nationalist writings of post-colonial history would remain relevant question.